The UK's renewable energy target

Published: 3rd Nov 2015

In brief


The EU has set a 15% overall target for UK energy consumption from renewable sources in 2020.


The UK does have a 15% overall target. It also has a 10% target for renewables in transport energy consumption in 2020. The exact way in which the 15% target is met is up to the UK, so long as the 10% transport sub-target is met.


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"As for the emissions angle, we know that we are driven by the European requirements for renewable energy, the formidable target of 15% of our energy from renewable sources by, I think, 2020, and Europe's target of 40% by 2030."

Lord Howell of Guildford, 14 September 2015

"We have a 20% renewables target overall across all energy, which translates into a 30% target for renewable electricity and, I believe, there is a 12% renewable heat target, and therefore a 10% renewables target. There is no breakdown of those targets at a European level into those sub-sectors: it is simply an all-energy target, and there is no further subdivision into technology types."

Baroness Worthington, 14 September 2015

The UK's targets for renewable energy consumption come from agreement at European Union level. While it looks like the UK met its latest interim target, there is some doubt about whether it will meet the overall 2020 target of 15% of its energy consumption coming from renewable sources.

There are a number of ways that the UK can meet this legally binding target, including counting energy generated elsewhere towards its total. If it misses the target, then it faces the possibility of legal action by the European Commission.

15% of energy consumed in the UK should come from renewables by 2020 

The European Union has set itself the target of producing 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Each country in the EU has its own target to meet. These targets vary depending on a number of factors, including how much renewable capacity was already installed when the overall goal was set, and how rich the country is.

The UK has been asked to procure 15% of its energy consumption from renewable sources in 2020.

The EU also states that countries should have a "national action plan" containing non-binding sectoral targets for renewable sources in 2020 electricity, heat and transport energy consumption.

Britain's plan shows that 30% of electricity, 12% of heat and 10% of transport energy coming from renewable sources would meet our overall target of 15%.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change says that while it's only one scenario that meets the overall target, it provides the government an indicator to measure progress against. The UK might meet the overall target by using a different mix of energy, or through other policies.

Separate target for transport energy consumption, calculated differently

There is a binding 10% target for renewable energy in transport specifically, also set at EU level. When counting progress on this target, certain renewable sources count more than others; for instance, energy from some biofuels is counted at double the amount actually produced.

But these 'multiplied rewards' don't count towards the target for all energy. So "we could meet the transport sub-target without contributing a full 10% towards the overall renewable energy target".

The government has stated that it still wants transport to contribute 10% towards the overall target in "real energy terms".

The UK can count energy produced elsewhere against its targets

The UK can make arrangements which count renewable energy produced and used in other member states towards its targets.

These arrangements include things like 'statistical transfers', where some renewable energy is taken away from one countries progress towards its target and added to another's, and countries working together to fund a specific renewable energy installation (like a wind farm), sharing the energy produced towards both countries renewable targets.

The UK's national plan doesn't include any contributions from these arrangements, although the Coalition government did look into the possibility of using them in 2012.

Future targets for 2030 onward

The European Commission has also set proposed an overall target for renewable energy in 2030. Across the EU, it wants 27% of energy consumption to come from renewable sources. This doesn't include national targets; countries will have flexibility to decide their own objectives.

Similarly, the Commission has outlined a number of scenarios for 2050, which see up to 75% of final energy consumption coming from renewable sources.

The 15% target is legally binding—but how binding?

The EU target for 15% of the UK's energy to come from renewables by 2020 is "legally binding". The Renewable Energy Directive describes it as "mandatory".

However, the Directive didn't include a standalone mechanism for punishing countries that fail to meet their targets.

The European Commission has a general power to take legal action against member states that don't fulfil their obligations under EU law. It has already done so in the case of countries failing to take the steps required by the Renewable Energy Directive.

But enforcing the targets themselves this way is a different matter.

For one thing, some lawyers doubt that any action could be taken until after the target has actually been missed (i.e. 2020), although others disagree. For another, the procedure can take some time. So "legally binding" may not be the same thing as "effective".

If the Commission did take legal action, then the UK could eventually face financial penalties.


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